Interview with Norman Freeman


Interview with Norman Freeman


Norman Freeman was born in London, his wartime preference to be a pilot was thwarted by poor eyesight so he became a wireless/radar mechanic. After training he served all over Britain, and then France at the end of the war. Norman told of why he chose the RAF and his memories of the war, climbing radar towers and repairing equipment after it was bombed. Norman talks of friendship, service conditions and moving on after the war. He joined the GLC and stayed until retirement, enjoying travels abroad to a number of countries.




Temporal Coverage





01:23:39 Audio Recording

Conforms To


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TO: Okay, so what year were you born?
NF: 1922. In two weeks’ time I’ll be ninety four years young.
TO: And where were you born?
NF: In London, southern England. I was actually born in Westminster hospital.
TO: And were your parents involved in the First World War?
NF: They were indeed. I’ve got his medals and I’ve got my medals. They are in the cupboard just to hand if you want to see them. He was in the Royal Horse Artillery and he was really in the war, whereas my war was fairly quiescent.
TO: Did he ever speak about his wartime?
NF: I regret that I never really questioned him about it. One or two things he mentioned, but I never, afterwards, after I matured a little bit, I thought why didn’t I ask him this, why didn’t I ask him that? He must have had quite a variety of experiences, some quite horrific maybe. He was in charge of the big guns and came back with a deaf ear as a, an heir, bequeathed by the war. Whereas I’m pretty deaf, but I can’t blame the war – old age! [Laugh]
TO: And were you interested in aircraft as a child?
NF: Not as a child no, but when it came very near to 1941 when I got to an age where I was likely to be called up I considered my options and I was a mathematics keen man, had very good teaching at my college, my school and I thought well a bomber pilot would be, I’d fit in nicely and so I volunteered for the Air Force, which I did in 1941, and after a number of interviews and examinations they said I’m very sorry, you can’t fly, your eyes are not good enough. Now I thought right I didn’t know whether to be pleased or sorry. I was pleased because my chances of survival were considerably better if I’m not flying, on the other hand I’m sorry I didn’t get where I wanted to get. They said you can’t fly so go back and wait to be called up. And I thought I don’t like khaki, I much prefer blue, so I said no I’ll stay in the Air Force and remuster. And they said well okay, we’ll put you on some exercises and see how you get on. Well the first thing they did was to send me to Sir John Cass Institute in the East End where they taught me the basics, which I already learned at my college, of electrics and electronics, that sort of thing, which I’d learned at my college, electronics and all that sort of thing, or things a wireless mechanic, which they put me on to, would want to know. And again, after all these tests they selected the, about the first five I think, out of the class to go into radar and I happened to be in the first five. So I then became a radar mechanic, or radar engineer, I elevate myself a bit, and I spent the rest of my career as a radar engineer and I travelled all over England and especially I was stationed at the south coast aerodromes, where they were liable to be bombed and that was my only taste of, you know, of real war because a lot of these airfields were targeted by the Germans and we lost a bit of life in those bombing raids so my radar had to see it coming. And radar, if you don’t know a lot about it, it’s quite a simple thing. It consists of two elements: a receiver and a transmitter, and the transmitter, there are two functions which radar does, this is one which is detection, two front, two machines, a receiver and a transmitter and the machine with the transmitter transmits a beam which like anything else has an echo and the echo comes back and appears as a blip on a cathode ray tube and a good operator from that can determine how big it is, how many planes there are, how high it is and gives us all the information which allows for us, cause a report goes to Fighter Command in Stanmore and they decide what to do and they’ve got to get their planes up the incoming flight. So that’s the basic transmitter/receiver and I was a cog in that machine and it was a war we need devised. I mean because in talking about the cipher people at Buckingham, that’s another war winning thing, and when we discovered the naval code, cause our ships were being sunk at a rate which we wouldn’t survive much longer, that code saved lives there. And radar was another one that saved our lives. We were prepared. They didn’t know at the beginning how on earth did our fighters get above them without their knowing we’re coming. We could see them taking off from French airfields, so it’s a wonderful thing. I was, my job was to ensure that the machinery worked, and this is what I was on. I went on courses apart from John Cass, I mentioned Cranwell and Yatesbury and other training courses and I spent about six months learning about radar. That’s the main, that was the first function of radar: to detect planes coming in. But there’s another on which people don’t know about quite so well and that is navigation. Now this is, Sir Robert Watson Watt, all his brainchild, this second one. This second one was navigation. And what they did was, they picked on a pair of bases, perhaps a thousand miles apart, let’s say they are both north and south, and then there were another pair, let’s say they are east and west so they crossed over. And a plane who is on a mission, and is somewhere within that cross and they would be, from determining on a chart which they’ve got in the plane, they can determine where, exactly their position is in relation to these two beams intersecting and they know where they are. So that’s the other function of radar. Wonderful thing, another brainchild, and a war winner, our planes knew exactly where they were, detection and that’s known as ORAN. Long range. So there’s long range detection. So that what I was involved and I was a cog in that big wheel. And that’s, I mean if you really want a short half page summary of what I did, this is my career; this is my Royal Air Force discharge and there it is. That’s me!
TO: Thank you.
NF: No military secrets here, [laugh] but you can have a look and see what it says if you like.
TO: I’ll have a little look later if that’s okay. Would it be okay if we had the main lights on?
NF: Yes. Not very good is it? And that one.
TO: Right. Is there anything we can do about that background noise?
[Other]: Should go off.
NF: That’ll switch off.
TO: Sorry I can remove background noise in post production. So when you were growing up in the 1930’s, did you hear at all about Hitler’s behaviour in Europe?
NF: 1930’s. I would be eight.
TO: 1930’s.
NF: 1930. Well I was born in 1922, so it’s eight years onward, eight to twelve. I don’t think our conversation would really have been, well, as a child what’s going on, we weren’t really educated at that time to understand it all. So no, not 1930s, 1940s maybe.
TO: And do you remember hearing about the Munich Agreement?
NF: Not really. What date was that?
TO: 1938.
NF: Well we remember that, the Prime Minister came back with a bit of paper saying all is well, I have an agreement with Hitler, and it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. So yes, at that time we were beginning to be aware of what was going on in Germany, we didn’t then know about the concentration camps and the brutality and the killings and the German attitude to what was going on – they didn’t want to know; they weren’t interested. Fact we have now, we employ many German people and what, we don’t ask we don’t ask what they did in the war! Hopefully. But we employ people from all over the world.
TO: And what do you think of Chamberlain appeasing Hitler?
NF: Well, he was our representative in Parliament and we have to assume the Prime Minister knows what he’s doing. But it’s only afterwards that we realised we that wanted Churchill, not a Chamberlain. He saved our lives, Churchill, who at that time, wasn’t accepted. So we realised afterwards that he’s a weakling and he’s not serving our interests at all in coming back with a worthless bit of paper. It meant nothing so we went to war, and that time we invited Churchill to form a government and that was our saving grace.
TO: Do you remember hearing about France being defeated?
NF: About what?
TO: France being defeated.
NF: Sorry.
TO: France.
NF: France being defeated. Well of course in that time, in 1941, I was already in the forces and all these things were everyday news going on no doubt by popular songs at the time. Hang out our washing on the Maginot Line, that sort of thing. Yes, of course we heard. The people on the south coast must have been a bit worried that, the way was open then for the Germans to sail over and take over England. But happily didn’t happen.
TO: Were you worried about an invasion?
NF: Well again, as a youngster, we’re not pessimists. Oh no, we’ve got an army, we’ve got an Air Force, and we, were, that’s living in the false you know, premise that we’d win through and, in the end. We were much better under Churchill’s direction but we did indeed, but we, a very close thing because we didn’t have the equipment to deal with it, or was it Beaverbrook that started getting things going and brought in a lot more aircraft and that’s the key to the situation then, it was aircraft, aircraft, and thank God that we had a Churchill and a Beaverbrook to get things going, and they did. And that’s my, the way I looked at it.
TO: And do you remember preparations for the war?
NF: Reparations?
TO: Preparations. Like blackout curtains.
NF: Oh preparations, oh yes, people going round at night time: “switch out that light!” oh yes, very much so. Living as I was then, in north London remembering on one particular day in the Blitz, when the whole of the East End was on fire and would look over towards the east and the sky was ablaze and the suffering by the people who lived in that area and the losses were horrendous and it was a terrible situation, as Churchill said, it was, we had to thank the few for all the savings that they did. Our planes, our guns were not, were rather antique, they didn’t bring down any planes, but the sound of the the guns going [knock].
[Other] Hello. Would you like a cup of tea?
NF: Would you like a cup of tea?
TO: No thank you.
NF: No, I’m all right. Thank you. Bye. So that’s the situation – yes, we were in it. Weren’t a hundred years apart actually had fighting in it and doing our bit, and that’s how it was.
TO: Do you remember what the air raid shelters were like?
NF: Yes, we had one in the garden, but it was flooded so we couldn’t use it. I think underneath the kitchen table was about the best air raid shelter we could find! But some of us just went to bed. But by that time I wasn’t at home, I was off, in the forces. We got all the news, but blighty, England was a long way away. Yes, we were upset. We read the papers and the, you get the intelligence through various channels but yes, we were very upset about.
TO: And do you remember the day when the war started?
NF: Yes, eleven o’clock in the morning there was an announcement on the radio, I’ve forgotten what the exact words were, but we are at war with Germany, words to that effect, as I remember it, so yes. Rather startling, but that’s the way it was, what happened. But we have a parliamentary democracy, and if that’s what their decision was, to go ahead and take up arms against Germany, or rather defend [emphasis] ourselves against Germany, so be it. So what else could we do? Not just cave in. We’re not, British people aren’t like that. That was Churchill in command. We made our way and eventually succeeded.
TO: Had you heard anything about antisemitism in Germany before the war?
NF: Well, we about it heard after, we learnt what had been going on. Unbelievable stories. Cruel, and Jews, gypsies, but mainly Jews, were killed in their thousands, brutally. So yes, we were outraged about, still are when you think about the Holocaust and all that they did, and the cruelty and the inhuman attitude that the Germans had, as I say, we’ve met Germans since, we had Germans in, one or two Germans employed, we don’t ask what them about what happened in the past, nothing we can do about it now. But what we heard was inhuman brutality and killing and that was antisemitism. Why? Jealousy? That Jews got all the money, Jews take the best jobs: it’s ingrained. They’re not educated to understand. They do what their parents tell them, their parents are antisemites and they teach their children and even today there are schools, Muslim schools, where children are taught a different point of view. That’s a free country, that’s one thing, but people need to be educated and it takes generations before these prejudices [emphasis] are wiped out. Hopefully.
TO: And can you tell me more about the interview you had when you joined the Air Force?
NF: Oof! The answer to that is no! I had a number of interviews because at that time they, I joined they took me on and they didn’t quite know what my possibilities are or what my abilities are, and it was just a pleasant interview and they said we’ll take you on and see how you progress. Well I progressed well and finished up by getting one of the plum jobs which considered then, I’m not being a wireless one of the intellectual few who were on radar, and I was, I became well versed in that, and I did a good job. If you read that then you’d see what a good job I did! Yes, I don’t remember the details, but I achieved such successes were proper.
TO: Did you consider the Navy at all?
NF: Not as a career – not as anything! [Chuckle] I once took my wife on to a boating trip, in a boat, and a big ship passed by and we rocked and rocked, my wife was sick and said don’t you ever take me on the water again! I didn’t. I never did like water, I can swim, but I like to come out, I stick in the shallow end, I don’t trust the deep end any more. No, so I never considered the Navy. The last thing I would consider!
TO: Do you remember the medical tests they gave you?
NF: Well, it’s the normal medical test. Tested my heart, they already looked at my eyes, tested my innards, told me to cough, which I did. There seemed to be no problem there. [Laugh] And no, it’s just when you think about it, medical test, can you remember a medical test that you had fifty sixty years ago? No. Neither can I.
TO: Do you remember the type of training you had for being the radar mechanic?
NF: Yes. Well, there was the original basic course, then we went to Cranwell, Yatesbury, where we, seeing the equipment and being instructed on how it worked and what your job would be and we would learn what the principles of it was and it was over quite a long period, I went to Crat, Yatesbury and Cranwell. They’re both big training places and we learnt practice, practically how it all worked. Yes, as well as you can remember, I can’t recall exactly what the medical tests we were given, nothing extraordinary.
TO: Did you have to pass exams?
NF: Yes, I’m quite good at passing exams, I passed, obviously for passed to become radar, I passed exams all the way from school onwards. I was in civvie street before going in the Air Force. I applied for jobs in the GLC and in the Civil Service and they both replied: yes. I had to consider which one I wanted to go to. Well the Civil Service I could have gone to John O’Groats whereas the GLC in London near home, so opted to stay in London and became an administrator in the GLC and I finished up as audit manager in the GLC and that was after I came back. I had to take more exams, I got a university diploma in public, DPA, Diploma in Public Administration. A normal life, nothing extraordinary.
TO: Can you tell me what the installations, the radar installations were like?
NF: Well the outside installations were aerials and the radar stations, the transmitter needed to have a three hundred and sixty foot tower and one of my jobs was to climb these, about four stages, to climb up the ladders up to the top where the aerials were. And like I had no fear of water, I wasn’t very happy climbing up, to about, I don’t know how many feet, but way up into the sky and we had to maintain the aerials, so, but otherwise, the equipment is the two, the transmitter and receiver and my job to keep making sure they are serviced and then making it easier for us if there was a fault, you had to diagnose where the fault is, but you don’t have to repair the fault you take the unit out and put a new unit it. That’s the basis of it all, keeping the two big elements: the transmitter and receiver, on line keeping it going because our lives depended on it, and the lives of people around us.
TO: Do you remember the name of the stations you were at?
NF: Huh, I’ve got so many stations! I was at one station called Sango right on the extreme north tip of Scotland, otherwise all the southern chain of stations along the south coast, it would have been Beachy Head, that was one there, and there’s one on either side. I’m ninety four. My memory as was, is not there and many of the things, you just lose them and I can’t remember the names of each station but if you look at any map of the south coast and there were, a chain of stations round there and I probably visited each one of them. Dover, there was one there, and others, and the biggest one was where Hendon aerodrome is now I think. I was there. So I was, my job took me all over the place.
TO: Do you remember what your daily routine was?
NF: [Pause] Oh, there’s no difference to what I’ve just been saying. We were called early in the morning, it depends on what happened overnight. If there’d been a bombing raid it was a question of clearing up all the debris and dealing with the problems that arose out of that, some of our equipment might have been damaged, I had to spent time trying to put things back as they were. Replacing damaged equipment, service them all, make sure they work, so it was a normal working routine, so nothing extraordinary. Happily I didn’t have to climb up to the top of the tower to see what’s happened to the aerials, it still worked.
TO: And what, do you remember Battle of Britain?
NF: Oh I was very much involved in it, of course I do. And the Blitz, all part of the Blitz and I was nearly in it for a time, as I told you. The Battle of Britain, they destroyed the East End already sort of mentioned that. For the most part I wasn’t there then, I was in Britain, up north then, or wherever, eventually I went over to France when we were beginning to win the war then, but for the most part I was somewhere within Britain. I think my closing papers would say about four months abroad and the war was nearly over by then.
TO: What did you do for entertainment?
NF: When possible in the evenings in sections there was WAAFs and airmen together and have dances, and then to dance. So that’s, there was no education facilities, entertainment whatever we made for ourselves and there were social events, parties and things, but nothing too, nothing out of the ordinary. Normal lives.
TO: What were your favourite wartime songs?
NF: Oh come on! “Hang out your washing on the Siegfried Line.” I don’t remember any other. I like classical music, not pop music. I can’t think of any operas that came up during that war.
TO: And were you part of Fighter Command?
NF: Not really, radar, well, in a sense yes, because all our reports had to go to Fighter Command for them to decide what sort of answer they’re going to bring. The aircraft situation was petty desperate, would they send up a few fighters, if they can, or not, our reports to them would make their decision. You probably heard that when we were at its peak, and we were in a very dangerous state, and Churchill was there at Fighter Command, you’ve probably heard all this, but Churchill said we must bring up all our reserves and the commanding officer at that time said, “I’m sorry sir, all our reserves are already in action.” And that’s quite well known, so that tells you.
TO: Was you, were any of your stations ever bombed?
NF: Yes they were. I think I’ve mentioned that. Being in an airfield they were targeted by the Germans when they got to realise that this is the, what’s been going on, how they managed to get there, our fighters, up above them without their knowing why, how we knew. And the fact is that we did our observation, we did send our reports to Fighter Command and on our reports the whole of our lives depended because they would decide how many planes they could afford to send up to combat whatever was coming in, and radar would tell them roughly how many planes were coming in and where they were. And so yes, we were a link to Fighter Command but not under their direction, but a link to pass on information.
TO: And did you pass information on to Bomber Command?
NF: Well we passed it on to Fighter, to Central, no to the Central Fighter Command Headquarters at Stanmore, that’s where it went, because we were defending ourselves. Commander Harris of Bomber Command was something which was quite separate.
TO: And were you involved in the radar system called Gee?
NF: Gee, yes. That’s another navigation system. I wasn’t involved in it but I knew about it.
TO: How did you feel when the RAF started bombing Germany?
NF: I thought jolly good job, serve them right! Very uncharitable. No. They were quite relentless in bombing our cities and causing a lot of destruction, especially in the East End and some our big cities on the east coast where they could get there quite easily, and we had to have our planes somewhere near there as well so we could combat it, but no, I can’t say I was unhappy to hear that Germany’s being bombed. And when it was Berlin I think everybody said, jolly good, serve ‘em right and we when they burnt out one big town, completely obliterated it, fire that destroyed a whole town in Germany, I can’t think which one it is, and again, I personally felt well, that’s what they would do to us if they had the chance and I wasn’t sorry.
TO: Was it Dresden?
NF: Dresden, yeah, that’s right. And they destroyed it. Rivers of fire. Well it’s ghastly. Should one feel sorry, for people, knowing that these are the very same people who would have done that, and had done that to us, they destroyed the East End. So, I just speak for myself. I say yes, that’s what they deserve, and I see, again, very uncharitable, I’ve seen and talked to German people, I speak German a bit and I think what did you doing the war Germany? I don’t ask. But no, I’m not, I wasn’t sorry, I’m not, I wasn’t sorry. I was sorry for ourselves. Cherished the hope. [Pause]
TO: During the blitz did you ever see anyone behaving badly?
NF: Behaving badly. What, in England? Well I wasn’t there all that much, but what do you mean by behaving badly?
TO: Well, was there anyone acting selfishly, or not helping others?
NF: Well I’m sure they were. After all, it takes all sorts to make up a town, they aren’t all spotless. Some, any deliberate things like pulling your curtains back and give, allowing bombers to see that there’s a light there and a town allowing them to drop their bombs where they see the light. I don’t know, maybe that happened, maybe not. But behaving badly I certainly wouldn’t remember it.
TO: What’s your best memory from the war?
NF: Being discharged. No, we’d had enough. I’d been there five years, I wanted to get on with my studies. I wanted to progress in my civilian life, I would take degrees or diplomas, to get promotion, which I did. I finished up as Audit Manager with about thirty people under my control. It wasn’t till there was a reconstruction in the GLC and they appointed people above me to tell me what to do. I thought well that’s it I’m getting out; at fifty nine I retired. I said to my wife how will we manage on half pay? She says, “You go, we’ll manage.” And I did. So that’s the way we looked at it, so I was happy to be back, I wanted to get on with my studies.
TO: Do you remember when America joined the war?
NF: Yes. That was after Pearl Harbour. I’ve been to Pearl Harbour and seen the hulk of the battleships that were sunk there, in Hawaii, I remember it, I’ve seen it, not at the time, but fifty years later, so yes, I do remember. Of course it, bringing America in turned the tables, and things turned the other way. We overcome the u-boats, we got the codes, we got all these wonderful innovations, the people in Buckingham with their cyphers that broke the codes and we were beginning to take command of the war and eventually we did. So it was a success story.
TO: So were you stationed at airfields mostly?
NF: Yes, as I say, mostly, and we would be the targets. Not only were we, knowing they’re coming, but we knew they were coming in our direction, and they were, some of the London, not London but south coast airfields were heavily bombed and I was at one where we had, know they’re coming you get into a safe place as far as you can, but we had quite a number of fatalities. And as I said before, our job then was to repair any machinery and do what we can to help clean up the damage, but we were certainly at the airfield where damage had been done cause we were the targets and we knew it, but we had time to duck down somewhere, get out of the way. Not always. But this is where our radar was helpful. We knew they were coming and got ourselves ready as they did when the planes went up before they got to the coast because we knew they were coming and told Fighter Command.
TO: Where did you duck down as it were, at the airfields?
NF: Where did we?
TO: Where did you go on the airfields during an attack? Was there a shelter?
NF: Well, there were various places there where you can get down, dug-outs and air raid shelters of a sort and just keep your head down and the whole thing lasted about a couple of minutes and they were gone. But despite that there were a number of casualties. But no, no more than that, it wasn’t a wholesale destruction, but they did quite a bit of damage but just my concern was to make sure the equipment was working.
TO: Was the equipment very reliable?
NF: Oh yes, oh yes. If there’d been a bombing raid in which the actual place or the equipment was damaged well there’s a lot of damage to repair, but otherwise, like a, not quite as good as it is today with digital equipment, it can last for many years, but there’s more water cooled and huge bows which were water filled in those days but they still worked but the success that the Air Force had is testimony to the fact that they did work.
TO: Do you remember what aircraft were stationed at your airfields?
NF: Well they were either Spitfires or Hurricanes. There may have been some others but they were the main bulk then, and mostly Hurricanes, the Spitfires came later. They were called, all ready kitted out, they were waiting for a call, sitting round talking until the alarm would sound and they would know that there was a raid on and they’d go up, and hopefully they would come down, but not all of them did. But the Germans lost more than we did. But the paper reports weren’t very accurate they tend to lend themselves to praising the British a bit more than they really were. But anyway, we succeeded at the end of the day.
TO: Did you ever chat to the aircrew?
NF: Oh yeah. Of course you had to, you had to, yes. We’re all in this together and we’d tell each other stories of what went on, what happened, some would come back badly injured but managed to bring the plane back, and where possible we were asked to we’d go out and help to get somebody back in again and the planes were, some of them, wonder how they flew back, full of holes and shrapnel. The percentage of casualties in the Air Force was pretty high and many [emphasis] of my friends didn’t come back. We were all of an age, we were all full of ideas and we were all called up, many of them in the Air Force and some of my very good friends waiting to hear news of them coming back; they didn’t come back. So, it was very sad.
TO: How was morale?
NF: Pardon?
TO: How was the morale in the Air Force? How was the morale?
NF: Morale. Oh, they were all looking forward to a few days leave, but while they were on the job they got on with it. The mentality was: we’ve made it so far, we’ll just carry on, try not to think about it. But it’s always a blow when one of our friends didn’t come back. And there’d be a rather sad moment, to learn that. But for the most part they’re fatalist, and they’d rather get on with it and that’s the situation.
TO: Did you ever talk about the people who’d died?
NF: Only very briefly. You don’t want to dwell on that, no. The senior staff or maybe one of the senior pilots would have to go and break the news to the family that they’re not coming back: very sad. They would be very concerned and many of the senior staff knew what the extent of the fatalities were, they were very sad about what has to be done, but still better than the previous war when man in their thousands were sent over the trenches at the battle of the Germans in thick mud and the Somme, we had a better, better understanding of people rather than canon fodder.
TO: Did you hear about Hitler attacking Russia?
NF: Well we didn’t like either of them. I mean Russia in a sense was an ally, but we knew, or we thought that Germany’s taken a step too far and there’s a, when you get in to the cold regions of Russia, they’ll find, and winter comes on they’ll find themselves stuck and they’ll be wiped out; and they were. Stalingrad, so, yes. We weren’t unhappy at that. Situation’s not much better now: with Putin there, we’re fighting a cold war, not a hot war. A war of words with Putin and the President of America, Obama and his Chief of Staff and all these, from our own point of view, all the problems in, going on in the moment are all Russia inspired. They’re belligerent in getting more land again, bit like what happened before, but I can’t say any more than that. But we weren’t sorry.
TO: And what do you think was the most important campaign of the war?
NF: Well I’m not a strategist. [Pause] I think in south, north, in Africa, where we drove back the Germans from occupying the coast, and we’d been able to take over the Egyptian border in Africa and recover some of the ground that we lost, that was the beginning of the end, of the turning point, that we, we started to recover land we lost. I can’t remember the detail.
TO: What do you think was the best aircraft the RAF had?
NF: Oh, I’m not in a position to compare, but the Spitfire, Hurricane were very good, the Meteor, er, there were others. But the Spitfire probably got, depends what you were using it for. The aircraft for, long distance aircraft, that’s a different category entirely. We had four engine planes, Boeings, which were capable of flying to, deep into Germany and back, but I’m not in a position to be able to compare as far as fighter planes concerned: Spitfire led them all.
TO: Was there any bullying in the Air Force?
NF: Any what?
TO: Bullying.
NF: Bullying? All these questions you’re asking me are very personal. There may have been; I was never bullied. But to answer your question would be impossible! I had no knowledge of any bullying. I think maybe the Army had a reputation for sergeant majors doing some bullying, but the Air Force that I [emphasis] knew was not like that at all. No, we all got on with our jobs and if we were wrong, we were wrong, there was no bullying that I was aware of. We didn’t have regimental sergeant majors saying run round the whole of the aerodrome six times with heavy pack on. No, not to my knowledge. I can only answer for myself.
TO: And what was your accommodation like at the airfields?
NF: Basic. We weren’t cold. There was always a coal, not coal, coke I suppose, fire in the sort of dormitory, was always warm, people always coming and going as one shift went another shift would go and the food, well, wasn’t bad. What we were given we couldn’t be too concerned about, you were, what food it was or where it was. So it was eatable. And then when I was unwell, I had a minor op, I went to Barnet hospital for five days I couldn’t eat any [emphasis] of the food I was on. After my five days was up I came back, I hadn’t eaten, or hardly eaten for five days, but these things happened, you know, food from one place to another varied, maybe something you got used to, but in the Army or the Air Force you had to get used to it. It’s take it or leave it: there’s no second choice.
TO: Do you remember what your working hours were?
NF: Oh, 24 hours a day. If we’re called, we’re called. You sleep lightly and such times you’re called during the night for certain problem. When a transmitter’s on the blink they want an engineer to find out what’s wrong, get it going quickly. These things had to be maintained. So, twenty four hours, that’s my working hours.
TO: What was the most common problem with the equipment?
NF: The equipment, as I say, was pretty good, it very seldom went wrong, but if it did it was a question of getting it out, getting another unit in and the actual sorting out what the problem was is left to the senior engineers who’d got the information of how to deal with it. I was a cog in the machine, I wasn’t the main link, no, so that’s it. I was always available, well in the forces you are. You’re called upon to do a job, you have to do it. There’s no trades unions to say you’ve exceeded the hours.
TO: And do you remember the Normandy Invasion?
NF: Yes, a bit of a disaster. Well, I wasn’t part of it, I only read about it any more than anybody else, but it appears that maybe the Germans knew it was coming, bit of secret information which had got out and they were prepared, and suffered huge losses. That I do remember, but I wasn’t involved.
TO: And when were you sent to France?
NF: When?
TO: Yes.
NF: Not till after the war was over, right at the end, the war was nearly over by then so I spent most of my time in England and Scotland.
TO: And what were your duties in France?
NF: Well at that time the war was over, I think I was sent there prior to being discharged there was a very relaxed four or five months when I could sort of begin to relax again, stop worrying, and there was no war, it was over, and I was waiting for my discharge. You can see from there, it’s all in there, and I was discharged in 46, so I, 41 to 46 that’s my life in the Air Force and it’s summed up in there in about half a page.
TO: Were you ever scared?
NF: Well I don’t scare easily, but I’m sure I must have been. You can hear the V2s coming over with their thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. And you know the engine’s going to cut off at any moment and the charge of the bombing, bombing charge which just sort of drop on your head. So yes, I’d be worried. It’s always a relief to hear, it goes away from you rather than come towards you. So yes, I was scared, but I didn’t scare easily.
TO: Did you ever see any of the V1s?
NF: Any of the?
TO: V1s.
NF: Did I ever see them? I saw them on the ground afterwards at the Air Force Museum. They have all these things. But I didn’t see them in real life during war time.
TO: And what about the V2s?
NF: Well, same again, I heard them, I didn’t see them. If you hear them a bit too loud then you begin to get scared cause they’re coming your way. But they’re so fast that you don’t hear anything, all you hear is a sudden explosion so you get no warning with a V2.
TO: Did people seem very shocked when the V2 attacks began?
NF: Well again, you’re asking me a very general question and I’m sure they were, and indeed I would have been, they based their experience in their own neighbourhood. I mean look around at the destruction which the V1s caused and the V2 was worse. It was soundless, it was more powerful, and you just didn’t know when it was coming. You didn’t hear a thing; it’s exceeding the speed of sound. So yes, it’s a war! Perilous situation.
TO: And what was your rank in the Air Force?
NF: Oh, I didn’t rank very far. I was a Leading Aircraftsman, LAC. I wasn’t Commander in Chief, [chuckle] I didn’t expect to be.
TO: And did you have some good friends? Did you have good friends in the Air Force?
NF: Of course. You had to have good friends, you’re all in it together. You’re a group of people, and you, whatever you’re doing you associate with people who are doing the same job, as we are here. You have many people who were eager and for one reason or another, and everybody’s very friendly and because we, were all in the same thing together, and if we had a grumble we’d grumble to each other, feel better, if not, and good feeling all round. You need to have friends when you’re in a situation like that or any other situation. You can’t, life is not meant to live on your own, you have to enjoy life with people. That’s the way you felt.
TO: And the people that you worked with, were they the same age as you?
NF: Mostly, because they were called up. The senior staff, they were very experienced and they were more elderly but the cogs in the wheel were all about my age then. I was there from aged about nineteen for five years, that makes it till I was twenty four. When I was twenty four I was discharged, and during that time I made many friends. Kept in touch for quite some time, but gradually other things happen and you move on.
TO: Did you ever get to travel aboard an RAF plane?
NF: Oh, I travelled, as a civilian, to all over the world. To all over, to the East, to Israel, to Japan, not to Japan, to Las Vegas, on holidays. Yes, we travelled, we, did you say RAF plane, they were RAF? Did you say RAF plane, RAF airplane? Not really, maybe once or twice just to see what the complaint was, to see what they were talking about. But the main job was not in the plane, my job was in the equipment on the ground. So, I was not concerned.
TO: And do you remember hearing about the Dambuster mission?
NF: Well of course. Wonderful idea, bouncing bombs. I only, I know of it what I saw on the news. These wonderful idea, these bouncing bombs, bouncing into the dam and the gushing waters coming out. I remember it well, but only from a distance and second hand. I wasn’t involved at all. Dambusters was captain,
TO: Guy Gibson.
NF: Yeah, Guy Gibson, thank you. You know more about it than I do! Were you in the, no of course, you couldn’t have been. Not in the Air Force.
TO: No, but I was at RAF Hendon last Sunday looking at the exhibit, that’s why. Did any of the RAF aircraft have their own radar?
NF: [Pause] it depends what equipment, where they were going and what they were using. Normally for that, for detection, for any flying aircraft they wouldn’t need it, they’d check the pulses from the ground based machinery and on the basis of that, they didn’t need to activate anything, but as regards navigation, where there were four stations right across Europe, they do have machinery in the plane which would tell them, with charts, just how, where they are for navigation, so depending on what they’re doing, but the normal plane: Hurricane, Spitfire, fighter planes, they wouldn’t have that to my knowledge.
TO: Did the Germans ever try and jam the radar system?
NF: Again, they might have tried. Whereas we did ourselves have, on one occasion we bent the beams so instead of bombing London they bombed Ireland. So we do the same things, yes, now they’ve got cyber people who interfere with the normal trading, they do all sorts of things with their knowledge and the same applies with mobile machinery, but no, most of the planes I was involved with did not have anything in the back.
TO: And do you remember the day that the war ended?
NF: Do I remember? Er, [pause] well, must have been about, well that been about a memory must have been about January -
TO: 1945?
NF: 45. 1945. [Clock chimes] Must have been about September. I can’t remember. Was it?
TO: Germany surrendered in May.
NF: May, ah.
TO: Japan surrendered in September. But how did you feel when the war ended?
NF: Well, like everybody else, elated. Get on with our lives.
TO: Did you do anything to celebrate?
NF: I’m ninety four now. What did I do in 1945? A long time ago. Fifty years ago, no I don’t think I celebrated I was just glad to get back to normality, and pass some exams and get promotion, which I did.
TO: I’m sorry to ask this, but what’s the, what’s your worst memory of the war?
NF: [Pause] I suppose my worst memory is my thoughts of what happened to other people. I can’t say I had any disasters in my own life. Fortunate in many ways. I was very sad when I heard of some major disaster, mostly where people were sheltering in the base of a building and it had caught a direct hit and they were all killed, that sort of thing, that’s my worst memory, but not for myself. But sad memory, what happened to others.
TO: And do you think Bomber Command was treated unfairly after the war?
NF: I do, I do. I know Bomber Harris was criticised for sending, well for the, the firestorm in, you told me the name.
TO: Dresden.
NF: Dresden. But then there’s a firestorm in the East End. This is war. You don’t have time to consider human frailty, you have to just do what you can to finish the war. The atom bomb on Japan did that very well, killed thousands of people, but it ended the war and saved thousands. So you have to look at it that way. They were sad things, but war is war and Japan wouldn’t understand anything otherwise. But when they were brought to their heels by the two Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs which blew the place apart and people were destroyed, burnt and awful things happened and you feel very sad about it but it saved a lot of lives. The war ended when that happened because Japan, it could have gone on and many thousands more lives could have been lost. So, that’s, that’s my worst memory, but it’s something they deserved. The Japanese were cruel: their Stuka bombers, hari-kari, the dive bombers and suicide bombers, well they were willing to have, give their own lives in order to kill many more. [Door sound] But anyway, that’s the situation, so I feel sad, but I think he, Bomber Harris did the right thing.
TO: Did you actually, during the war did you feel any animosity towards Germany itself?
NF: Well, course I did, the German people, the antisemitism, the cruelty, it all coming back, the death camps, it’s all coming back, the death camps, to learn of course I had animosity. I hated them. Yes, the answer is, most certainly.
TO: And how do you feel about Germany and Japan today?
NF: Well you have to move on, you have to move on. You can’t go on hating forever or you yourself become, overtaken by anger and rage and that’s not my life, not the way I want. No, you have to move on. I’m not happy about what happened, ever, I won’t forget. But I talk to German people now, as I do; we’re just people and we live our lives today and not where we were fifty years ago. And I have to say it’s twelve o’clock and our lunchtime is now. Do you have many more questions?
TO: Can I just ask a couple more?
[Other] Lunchtime’s in half an hour so you’ve still got a few minutes.
NF: I’ve got to get down there.
[Other]: Okay, a few more minutes?
TO: Just a couple more questions and that’s done. Have you ever watched any films about the war?
NF: I very seldom go to the cinema. I suppose I have. I can’t remember their names, I think lots of war films, some are very good. I don’t remember films.
TO: And do you think the war was worth the price?
NF: Was worth?
TO: The price. Do you think the war was worth the price?
NF: Worth what?
TO: Worth the cost?
NF: The cost? Well, we didn’t ask for war. We didn’t declare war. We defended ourselves. Was it worth the cost? Well, it destroyed Hitler, but Germany, it’s no different, we’ve now got Putin in Russia and got Russia to think about. Life goes on. So one war, one war finishes, another war starts. You just have to deal with it. You know, to avoid the, Russia sort of taking over where Hitler left off. No, no. No.
TO: What are your thoughts on Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan?
NF: Well, you’re asking my [emphasis] opinion, well, Iraq and Afghanistan are a long way away and we all have our own problems to deal with. I don’t think I, get too involved with that, maybe I should be, I don’t know. But I just have other matters to get on with and I don’t get time to read the papers and I certainly don’t watch television, very little, so I just concentrate on what I have to do.
TO: Is there anything you want to add, to finish off, which you think is important?
NF: No, I think we seem to have covered quite a lot of ground, in detail. I’m l happy to answer any questions, I’m happy to carry on as I was.
TO: Thank you very much for your time and your wartime service.
NF: Thank you Tom. Thank you. I’ve learnt as well as talked. As well as talking to you, I have learnt a lot, the line of questions you’ve been asking me, I’ve to think about that too. Thank you very much.
TO: Thank you.



Tom Ozel, “Interview with Norman Freeman,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 14, 2024,

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